DECLARATION OF KEN COMER, FORMER TASK FORCE INSPECTOR:
Editor's note: The following testimony was taken in Federal Court on-----date during a civil case that was started by attorney Michael Lapidus after he lost his apartment building that was located in the Westlake district of Los Angeles. Mr. Lapidus decided to sue the City of Los Angeles because he, along with all the owners of property located on ONE SIDE of the street, lost their properties after being attacked by the Task Force. The reason only one side of the street was attacked is because that side had been rezoned for highrise and, therefore, became more valuable for the land grabbers. None of the buildings on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET, although of the same general age and condition, were bothered. Although the two former inspectors knew that Hahn was corrupt, they didn't know about the profit motive for the theft.
I, Ken Comer, declare as follows:
- I have personal knowledge of the facts alleged herein. I could and would competently testify as to these facts if called as a witness in this matter.
- I was employed by the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety as an electrical inspector for approximately nine years from 1980 to 1989.
- During the period 1982-1988, I was a member of the City of Los Angeles Housing Task Force. In 1988-'89, I was a member of the City of Los Angeles Supplemental Housing Task Force, which made follow-up inspections of building subject to earlier enforcement actions by the regular Housing Task Force.
- During 1989 I prevailed upon the Department of Building and Safety to reassign me away from the Housing Task Force because I had become totally disillusioned with the activities. I had determined that despite all the press releases to the contrary, the Housing Task Force was not an impartial unit of inspectors And prosecutors dedicated to improving older, lower cost housing. Instead, the Housing Task Force was a very biased enforcement unit whose main objective was not to rid the City of long-term slumlords but did promote the p [political careers of members of the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. The Hous8ing Task Force accomplished that objective by generating a constant flow of publicity about Housing Task Force i8nvestigations and prosecutions, many of which were essentially false.
- During the years when I served on the Housing Task Force, I surveyed more than 3,000 buildings in the City of Los Angeles for compliance with electrical codes. I also testified as an expert witness for the prosecution in dozens of cases involving landlords whose properties had been cited for alleged electrical code violations during inspections by the Los Angeles City Housing Task Force. At one time I determined that I had spent more than 500 hours in court time as an expert witness in those cases.
- Unfortunately, I regret to inform this Court that many of those prosecutions should never had been brought. I have trouble sleeping some nights when I think about the large number of landlords who were unjustly [prosecuted and convicted solelyand I stress the word, solelybecause the Los Angeles City Attorney's office dominated the Housing Task Force and pressured the inspectors to set up owners for prosecutions rather than help building owners comply with requirements applicable le to their properties.
- The Housing Task Force is an inter-agency group of inspectors assembled from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety, and the County Health Department. Attorneys from the Los Angeles City Attorney's Housing Enforcement Section also are part of the Housing Task Force.
- At all times while I served on the Housing Task Force, its activities were under the domination and control of the Los Angeles City Attorney (James Hahn) and various deputy City Attorneys, including the deputy City Attorney who was supervisor of the City Attorney's housing Enforcement Section.
- Although inspectors assigned to the Housing Task Force remained employees of their separate agencies, once they joined the Housing Task Force they were owned by the City Attorney's office. By owned, I mean that Housing Task Force inspectors followed policy dictated by the City Attorney rather than policy dictated by their respective separate administrative agencies. This was not right and should not have occurred.
- The domination and control of Housing Task Force activities by the City Attorney's office was clearly evident at meetings of the housing Task Force. Those meetings were regularly held on a weekly basis and were not open to the public.
- At those weekly Housing Task Force meetings, the building, fire, and health inspectors present were constantly pressured by the deputy City Attorneys in the Housing Enforcement Section to make certain that inspections of various targeted landlords would lead to prosecutions. When I began to object to such pressure, I was excluded from those weekly meetings. However, my supervisor would not release me from service with the Housing Task Force because I was effective as a witness and because they had trouble finding electrical inspectors willing to serve on the Housing Task Force.
- Los Angeles City Attorney's pressure on the Housing Task Force inspectors was so pervasive that it caused the inspectors to seek violations to justify prosecutions in many cases where the landlords were very cooperative and made bona fide attempts to satisfy Housing Task Force orders.
- I am very familiar with the policies and procedures of the Department of Building and Safety. We were civil servants. Our job was to serve the public, not the City Attorney. If observed conditions at a building did require issuing a repair order to a building owner, our role as civil servants mandated that we explain alternatives to the building owner and help the cited owner comply with our repair orders.
- As civil servants, we should have worked with owners to correct problems or deficiencies, which we detected. In non-Housing Task Force inspections by the Department of Building and Safety, prosecutions of cooperative owners was not a policy or an objective. Nor was it a Building Department policy to conceal from a building owner the alleged deficiencies at his property or to otherwise hinder the owner's efforts to correct alleged deficiencies.
- However, it was clear to me during my period with the Housing Task Force that the City Attorney's office wanted the Building Department inspectors assigned to the Housing Task Force to inspect buildings and interact with landlords in a manner counter to the inspectors' roles as civil servants, and contrary to the Building Department practices and procedures. It seemed to me that the primary objective of Housing Task Force inspectorsand sometimes the only objectivewas not to remedy compliance problems, but to set up targeted owners for prosecution. We could do this by being unresponsive to owner inquiries, by finding new and previously unmentioned violations on reinspections, which caused buildings to fail reinspections, or by the consistent exercise of discretion in an unfair manner against the owner.
- It seemed to me that the City Attorney's Housing Section frequently was interested only in publicity, not in improving housing. The City Attorney often selected buildings or owners as targets for prosecutions, making an initial determination that a case could be won before the owner was even initially cited. All of the buildings inspected by the Housing Task Force were at least screened by the City Attorney's office before any investigation was done by the Building and Safety Department inspectors assigned to the Housing Task Force.
- I realized that many of the older buildings we inspected had accumulated years of deferred maintenance for which prior owners, not the current owners, were really responsible. Such deficiencies could not be reasonably expected to be corrected, even by a well-capitalized, well-intentioned new owner4, within a brief period of 30 to 90 days. It takes time to get bids, find reputable workmen, and actually perform the work in a correct manner. Owners who bought buildings of this type, if unlucky enough to have the Housing Task Force cross their paths, never really knew what hit them. Even when they commenced diligent repairs and should not have been prosecuted, the Housing Task Force made them easy targets for prosecution by issuing them vague repair orders with unreasonably short compliance periods. This was done because the overriding objective of the Housing Task Force was not to obtain compliance and improve housing, but to obtain publicity from convicting landlords. (Editor's Note: Publicity was important to Hahn and other land grabbers, but they were after much bigger benefits: money for campaign donations).
- The anti-landlord, publicity seeking attitudes of deputy City Attorneys in the Housing Enforcement Section were clearly expressed in the closed meetings of the Housing Task Force. Before I was excluded from such meetings, the deputy City Attorneys often made comments in my presence, such as let's go get this guy and We're going to put him out of the landlord business. I was aware of an attitude of the City Attorney's office that resulted, even in certain cases where the inspectors informed the Housing Enforcement Section attorneys that the property owner had substantially or fully complied, in pressure to find new violations, to get something on the building owner. In those situations, it was impossible for the building owner to get an impartial inspection of his property or to avoid prosecution.
- The Housing Task Force made it very difficult for property owners to comply with its orders by intentionally avoiding policies or procedures to inform the public how to work with the Housing Task Force to come into compliance with its orders. This concealment from the public of policies and procedures was in marked contrast to the obsession which the City Attorney seemed to have about informing the press of the results of Housing Task Force inspections and prosecutions.
- One unwritten, but very clear policy of the Housing Task Force was to turn up the heat on building owners who did not immediately bow down to Housing Task Force orders. Any form of resistance by a building owner, from legitimate questioning of the necessity of work demanded in a repair order to the filing of almost any type of appeal, would often result in retaliation by the Housing Task Force. This retaliation could take the form of discovering new violations during very prompt reinspections of a property where work had just been signed off, or by a failure to approve repairs which were adequately performed, and or by punitive inspections of other buildings managed or owned by the same owner. Building owners who did not fall in line by pleading no contest when charged were targeted to be taught a lesson, and they were!
- I was instructed by Deputy City Attorney in the Housing Enforcement Section that another primary objective of the Section, besides obtaining initial convictions, was to get landlords placed on probation. The reason was that these landlords then formed an available inventory of soft (i.e. easy target for the Housing Enforcement Section to subject to later probation violation charges or to prosecutions regarding other buildings which they owned or managed. The Housing Enforcement Section could then seek jail time for these repeat offenders, which often could not be obtained for a first offense. That was also a great way to ensure further media coverage. Building owners who did plead no contest after a first offense often found out later to their dismay that their probationary status opened them up to even more abuse and biased inspections from the Housing Task Force. These subsequent prosecutions provided more opportunities for the City Attorney to garner publicity and keep a high profile before the press. I strongly believe that the probation of many landlords was manipulated in an abusive, unfair manner by the Housing Enforcement Section.
- I have read the Declaration of Deputy City Attorney Richard M. Bobb executed on March e, 1993, which was filed in this case in opposition to Plaintiff's request for a temporary restraining order. Mr. Bobb indicates in that Declaration that as of January 27, 1993, he is the supervisor of the Housing Enforcement Section. I read with particular interest paragraph 3 of that Declaration where Mr. Bobb states that he does not participate in the investigation of cases or dictate to any investigative agency what crimes should be investigated, what individuals should be investigated, or which buildings should be investigated. If that is true, and I doubt it, It would be a remarkable change of a long established practice of the Housing Enforcement Section to initiate and meddle in apartment building inspections. During my period with the Housing Task Force, the City Attorney's office did refer particular buildings and owners to the Housing Task Force inspectors for inspections when no such inspections were independently in progress by those inspectors or their administrative agencies.
- I have seen the complaint filed by plaintiffs in this action. Based on my experience with the Housing Task Force, I believe it is quite possible that plaintiffs were subjected to biased inspections and are wrongfully being forced to trial. I know for a fact that while I wasw with the Housing Task Force, buildings were unreasonably branded as slums, their owners convicted, and much publicity obtained by the City Attorney, even though the buildings involved were not slums.
- On April 3, 1993, I inspected the building owned by Plaintiff LPI Downtown Investors at 1224 W. 8th Street, Los Angeles, California 90017. I performed this inspection as a private inspector to assist Plaintiff LPI Downtown Investors in determining whether the electrical work performed for it complied with the work set forth in the Order to Comply (Effective Date: June 5, 1992) issued to LPI Downtown Investors.
- In connection with that April 3, 1993 inspection, LPI Downtown Investors paid the cost to fly me to Los Angeles for the day (from Fresno) and also paid me a fee of $500.00, which covered my time for that entire day and also compensated me for time spent in prior telephone conversations with Michael Lapidus. That fee was in no way dependent upon the outcome of my inspection of the premises at 1224 W. 8th Street. It was understood and agreed that I would truthfully indicate to Plaintiff's electrician, D&N Electrical & Construction Co, Inc.
- In my professional opinion, the electrical work performed complied with that ordered in the Order to Comply (electrical) bearing an effective date of June 5, 1992, and should be approved. Furthermore, the general appearance of the building was as good, if not better, as many of the buildings which I inspected and which were approved by the Housing Task Force when I served on the Housing Task Force.
- Based on my experience with the Housing Task Force, I believe that the failure by the Housing Task Force inspector to approve this electrical work clearly indicates that other improper motives are present in this case, which are blocking approval of this building. Knowing the history and past methods of operations of the Housing Task Force, I would guess that those improper motives are the same improper motives which tainted many past Housing Task Force inspections and prosecutionsto get publicity for the Los Angeles City Attorney's office and to retaliate against an owner who contest the wrongful actions of the Housing Task Force.
- I recently renewed my certification with the International Conference of Building Officials as an electrical inspector. After leaving Los Angeles, I have also worked on a temporary basis with the County of Fresno as a combination building, plumbing and electrical inspector.
- It is my opinion that while I was a member of the housing Task Force, the Los Angeles City attorney, through his Housing Enforcement Section, substantially interfered with the supposedly impartial inspection function of the fire, building and health inspectors assigned to the Housing Task Force. This interference and wrongful dictating of policy concerning inspections was present even at the inception of cases and effectively stripped property owners of their constitutional rights to deal with inspection orders at the administrative level before facing prosecution.
- I found this continual interference by the Housing Enforcement Attorneys to be very troubling for several reasons. First, it was not appropriate for those attorneys to control inspection actually underway. Second, to the best of my knowledge, none of the deputy City Attorneys possessed any qualifications or experience as fire, building or health inspectors and should not have meddled at all in the inspection activities of the Housing Task Force inspectors.
- During my several years with the Housing Task Force, I do not recall City Attorney James Hahn attending meetings of the Housing Task Force. Although he apparently conferred with the deputy City Attorney who headed the Housing Enforcement Section, and sometimes appeared at cited buildings or court litigation when television stations would meet him there, it was my opinion that the Housing Task Force operated without adequate supervision as a biased, publicity seeking entity, which ignored established policy of the separate administrative agency members And crushed property owners' rights.
- Except for the inspection fee referred to above, I have no financial, business, personal, or family relationship to plaintiff or to plaintiff LPI Downtown Investors, a California limited partnership. In fact, I had never heard of either plaintiff until I was contacted by telephone by plaintiff in late March 1993 and asked to inspect the building at 1224 W.8th Street in Los Angeles.
- I hope this federal court grants the relief requested by Plaintiffs. The Housing Task Force has been out of control for a long time and it is quite extraordinary that nothing has been done until now to expose this scandal. Only this federal court has the power to help Plaintiffs avoid being added to the long list of innocent Housing Task Force victims.
I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the state of California that the foregoing is true and correct.
Executed on April 3, 1993 at Santa Monica, California
Declarant Ken Comer